welcome to Borneo

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i arrived at Jarkata’s Soekarno–Hatta International Airport 6 hours early for a flight that departed 10 hours late to Kota Kinabalu: the capital city of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo.  i made my home right there in Terminal 3 nestled up with my pack as a teddy bear and my guitar as a pillow.  the nice flight attendants woke me up every once in a while not to inform me about the status of my flight but to hand me my consolatory box of chicken and rice: a humble apology on behalf of Air Asia for having to endure a free night’s stay on a clean carpet in an air conditioned room.  after spending 56 days in Indonesia i felt i had only scratched its surface but i was also eager to move on.  Borneo has been a much anticipated entry in my travel docket since the very beginning and in just a few hours i would be looking down over the vast blanket of clouds that covers it.

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Kota kinabalu (or simply “KK”) is a walkable town of about half a million.  it’s comprised of a small grid of unique strip mall-like buildings that line the north-western coast that overlooks the 5 islands that make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.  along the water front is a thriving fish market with plenty of fishing boats to sustain it.  other than Malaysians, KK has a large mixture of Chinese and Indian people that both keep to their respective areas.  the downtown area is bookended by two large awkwardly designed shopping malls.  quite an intriguing place considering it was destroyed several times over during World War 2 then rebuilt from scratch in the early 60’s.

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i was very excited to be reunited with my long time French-Canadian travel companion Nicolas who arrived several hours after me.  between my recent jet trauma and his latest traumatizing adventure in Northwest India, we were both looking forward to some R&R.  this of course would entail sharing stories of our travels during the consumption of strong ale, catching up on all the latest American films and sampling the Chinese/Indian/sea influenced food.

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we devoted two whole days of our R&R to two of the smaller football field-sized islands of Sapi and Mamutik to get our fill of hiking and snorkeling.  it was here i experienced my first proper sunburn in months, not only from direct sunlight but from the sun’s reflection off the glistening white skin of the hoards upon hoards of Chinese tourists.

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only after we were good and ready did we embark on our adventure to the sultanate of Brunei.  we first made a mandatory interstitial stop at the duty free Island of Labuan.  there we thought it appropriate to rent motorbikes (i nicknamed mine “Labuan James”) and give the island a thorough traipsing.  we found the place to have an interesting mix of rustic water village communities and industrial monoliths.  it seemed like every road we took eventually dead-ended onto a giant oil refinery or a Halliburton blah-blah.  Labuan also has a very impressive deep harbor filled with a hundred large ships waiting to unload.  the duty-freeness was of course the cherry on top.  you almost cant throw a stick here without hitting a shop selling a wide variety of very inexpensive spirits, chocolate, perfume and tobacco.  from here non-Muslims are allowed to bring two liters of alcohol into Brunei.  i was tickled by the thought of purchasing my favorite gin for half the price i was used to and then consuming it in a small country where the purchase and public consumption of alcohol has been banned for the last twenty years.

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Brunei is a very unique and special place with a fascinating history.  it’s home to less than half a million people, a little more than half of which occupy the main city of Bandar Seri Begawan.  of those, over 30,000 inhabit the Kampong Ayer water village built in the middle of the Brunei River witch also happens to be the largest village on stilts on the world.  the Brunei River and its tributaries act as the main arteries through the city.  they are bustling with water taxis eager to take you anywhere and everywhere.  in the center of town is a giant lavish mosque resting on a circular lake.  at the far end of town is the sultan’s palace perched on a hilltop overlooking all of his subjects.  here i truly felt as though i was in an intimate kingdom.

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on our way through customs we befriended a very nice French/Belgium couple named Hugo and Laure.  for the next several days the four of us marched vigorously from attraction to attraction starting at the water village then continuing on to the mosques and museums.  every place we went was clean, air conditioned and seemingly empty.

we wandered carefully through the water village for hours at a time on its maze of rickety wooden walkways raised above a mud plane.  near one entrance of the water village is a small info center with a few exhibits that glaze over the history and traditions of the Brunei people.  toward the end of the last exhibit we discovered a small paragraph that mentioned a tradition called “Sunat” which involves the circumcision of Muslim females between 40 to 60 days old.  coming from the western world we were understandably alarmed by this.  its description in this museum was quite vague so we decided we might try to inquire further by asking some actual Bruneians about the matter.  working this into a conversation was not easy for me but once on the topic they seemed to discuss it with the ease and comfort of any other mundane subject.  i asked one security guard who turned out to be well versed in the male procedure but when asked about the female procedure he simply said “i don’t know, i’m not a female” as if the question was as preposterous as asking a caterpillar what it’s like to flap its wings.  Hugo had a little more luck when he asked our hotel manager who assured us that the tradition is still widely practiced but he couldn’t tell us exactly what the procedure entails.  i finally resorted to the almighty Google who in addition to amplifying the vagueness produced many claims (including a first hand report) to suggest that their procedure is far less damaging than the ones practiced in parts of Africa.

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the mosques we visited were a far cry from the usual cozy modest digs i was use to seeing.  with fine marble, crystal chandeliers, gold plated everything, gushing fountains and elaborate foot washing facilities, no expense is spared here.  during non-praying hours we were permitted to roam freely and relax in the main chambers.


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our last full day in Brunei also happened to be the beginning of the Sultan’s two-week 67th birthday celebration.  the streets filled with spectators to watch the opening ceremony.  hundreds of solders marched in formation, golden cannons blared and jets flew overhead leaving trails of color.  we were even graced with an appearance of the sultan himself who made quite the entrance.

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being some of the only foreigners in town, we were approached, interviewed, filmed and photographed by a couple of local news publications (including this one).  and here is an excerpt of me running my mouth on the evening news.


also, i have been a traveling fool for over 6 months now… woot!

  1. #1 by dj on September 20, 2013 - 9:34 am

    “i like the music.” hahahaha! Brunei looks amazing. also, nice use of the apostrophe. you look so freaking happy hugging that bottle.

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